A LEXANDER HAMILTON was born in 1757 on the little island of Nevis in the West Indies, and there he spent his childhood. He was left motherless when he was very young, and was brought up by relatives. The future could not have seemed particularly bright for this lonely little boy. Yet he grew to be one of the greatest men of his time.
While still a lad, he was employed as clerk in a store; and he showed such ability and industry that soon he had almost complete charge of the business. But the life of a West Indian merchant was not to his taste, and his relatives were induced to send him to New York to continue his studies. He was now fifteen years old.
Hamilton wanted to enter Princeton and to get his college education as rapidly as possible, without regard to classes. However, the rules of Princeton did not permit of this; so Hamilton entered King's College, now Columbia University, instead.
At this time the colonies were on the eve of their struggle for liberty. Young as well as old were interested. Large numbers of the most able, upright, and conscientious men were opposed to the idea of separation from the mother country. They argued that the wrongs complained of could and would be settled peaceably. These men came to be called Tories or Loyalists. On the other hand, many patriotic young men in the different colonies formed themselves into bands called "Sons of Liberty." They stood for the rights of the colonists; and in their enthusiasm they raised liberty poles, around which they held their meetings.
One of these liberty poles was put up in New York City. But in January, 1770, some of the English soldiers in New York took down the pole and cut it up. This caused great excitement among the patriots and led to a fight between the citizens and the soldiers. In this battle of Golden Hill, as it is called, the first blood of the Revolution was shed, five years before the battle of Lexington. However, it was little more than a street brawl, not an heroic fight, and no one was severely hurt.
The Battle of Golden Hill
The Sons of Liberty also took an active part in New York's "Tea Party" which, although not so celebrated as the one in Boston, seems to have been just as effective. When the ship Nancy arrived with a cargo of tea, early in 1771, she was stopped at Sandy Hook. Her captain was brought to the city and told that he could not land his tea. He was then escorted by a large procession to the pilot boat, and carried out to his ship, which was compelled to turn back to England. About the same time the tea from another vessel was emptied into the harbor.
It was in the midst of such exciting scenes that Hamilton entered college. On July 6, 1774, he was present at a great meeting held by the patriots in New York to favor the First Continental Congress. Young, impulsive, thoroughly interested, he listened to the cautious lukewarm speeches. Finally he could stand it no longer and, stepping to the platform, began to address the meeting himself. The impression made by this boy orator of seventeen was great, and deep. His eloquence struck his hearers with surprise, and from that hour he was important to the cause of liberty.
In the fall of 1775 the patriots in New York removed some of the guns that were located on the Battery. They were discovered at work, and were fired upon by the English war ship Asia. The crowd grew excited, enraged, and sought to avenge themselves by injuring some of the Loyalists. They marched to King's College, whose president, Dr. Cooper, was unpopular because of his English sympathies. Hamilton, always ready to help the weak and unprotected, leaped to the steps of the building and began to harangue the mob, thus giving the good doctor time to escape. As the story is told, at first the doctor did not understand what was going on. Looking out of his window and seeing, as he supposed, one of his students urging on the crowd, he called to them not to listen to the young rascal. Before many minutes, however, he was glad to get away under cover of the young man's oratory.
Once aroused, Hamilton's keen interest in the fight for liberty never lagged. During the campaign around New York he acted as captain of a company of artillery, which he had trained so well that it attracted general notice. He had a share in the victories of Trenton and Princeton, although by that time his company was reduced to a mere handful of men. And at Yorktown he headed the assault on one of the British outworks, which he gallantly captured.
Early in the war, Washington was attracted by the young soldier: and in March, 1777, he appointed Hamilton his aide, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. His duties as aide were to take charge of the correspondence of the Commander-in-chief, to prepare and draw up his orders, proclamations, and other important papers.
There can be no doubt that this discipline was of immense value to Hamilton. It developed him and gave him a grasp of national affairs. And best of all, for four years it kept him in intimate touch with Washington and cemented the friendship between them.
The affairs of the Government, after the close of the war, were in a disheartening condition. The soldiers were unpaid. Congress had no power to raise money by taxation, had not even the power to protect the lives and property of the citizens. Commerce was at a low ebb. The states, jealous of each other, fell to quarreling and bickering.
New York and Virginia said that they owned most of the western land claimed by Massachusetts and Connecticut. Feeling ran high. Finally New York ceded all of her western claims to the Government. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia did the same. In this way a great national domain was created, and one of the interstate disputes was settled.
It was not so simple to solve the country's financial difficulties. The only way in which Congress was allowed to raise money for its many debts was by making requisitions on the states. These requisitions were paid grudgingly by some of the states; by others not at all. And Congress had no power to enforce payment.
The distress of the country was great. Almost everyone was in debt. Between 1775 and 1780 the Continental Congress had issued paper money to the amount of about $200,000,000. But it is not enough merely to print paper and call it money. People will not accept it as money at its face value, unless it represents gold or silver—something of value which can be had in exchange for this printed paper. Because there was no gold or silver behind the paper money of Congress, it rapidly fell in value until, in 1780, a man had to pay forty dollars in paper money for what would cost one dollar in gold or silver. And later in the South it cost one thousand of Congress's paper dollars to buy one gold dollar's worth of goods. This depreciated paper money gave rise to the expression "not worth a continental."
Paper Money Used during the Revolution
Besides the worthless paper money issued by Congress, there was also the paper money issued by most of the states. This added to the confusion. As there was no Government mint, practically the only coins in use, besides a few pennies, were foreign coins. It was not always easy to be sure what these foreign coins were worth, and any moderately cautious man had to keep at hand a small pair of scales with which to weigh the gold or silver.
Therefore much of the trading was done by exchange. That is to say, if a farmer bought a suit of clothes, he would probably pay for it in flour or some other product of his farm. Thus we read of an editor of a paper offering to take subscriptions for his paper in salt pork.
With all these complications, the country was rapidly going from bad to worse. So a convention was called at Annapolis, in 1786, to consider the question of setting up a uniform financial system. Alexander Hamilton was sent to represent New York. The convention did little. But from it originated the idea of calling all the states together in another convention to reorganize the government of the country.
New York appointed as her delegates to the proposed Federal Convention, John Lansing, Robert Yates, and Alexander Hamilton. The first two were bitterly opposed to the idea of giving great power to a National governing body. They feared that the importance of the State of New York might be lessened. Hamilton, with a broader view, was earnestly in favor of any movement to strengthen the Central Government.
The convention met at Philadelphia in May, 1787. Hamilton did his utmost to show up the dangers of the system of government under which they were living, and used his influence to have measures adopted that would remedy these evils. To his delight it was decided to draw up a new Constitution which would give greater power to Congress, would regulate the rights of the states, and would provide a president to see that the laws were carried out. The various articles of the Constitution were finally agreed upon and were signed by the majority of the delegates, ready for the states to ratify. During the fall of 1787 and the first months of 1788 the fight between the friends and enemies of the new Constitution waxed hot and furious.
Hamilton suggested the writing of a series of essays explaining the advantages of the Constitution, and the reasons why it should be adopted. This suggestion was acted upon; and from time to time arguments appeared in the newspapers of New York, which did much to remove the prejudices and fears of those opposed to the Constitution. Later these essays were collected and published under the name of The Federalist. The Federalist is one of the most famous books ever published in America. Of its eighty-five essays fifty-one were written by Hamilton.
When the New York convention met to decide whether that state should accept the Constitution, Hamilton was put to his wits' ends. Forty-six of the delegates out of sixty-five were bitterly opposed to the ratification. But by arguments so strong that they convinced enough of his opponents, he won a majority, and the ratification was approved. It was a great triumph for Hamilton. Eleven states having accepted the Constitution, it went into effect in 1789.
Washington was unanimously elected to act as the first President under the new Constitution. His inauguration was to be held in New York, and great preparations for the event were made in that city. Washington reached New York from Mount Vernon on April 23rd. On his journey he received a constant ovation from a loyal and enthusiastic people. From New Jersey he was rowed to New York in a gorgeous barge, manned by thirteen masters of vessels, dressed in white uniforms. Every vessel in the harbor was gay in holiday attire. On April 30, 1789, at the old Federal Building in Wall Street, George Washington took the oath of office as the first President of the United States.
Washington's Reception at the Battery, New York City
The Presidential Coach Drawing up in Front of Federal Hall in Wall Street
When President Washington chose his cabinet he made Hamilton his Secretary of the Treasury. With the country deeply in debt, with no money in the treasury, and with the endless number of important questions that must be decided before the new government could be placed on a sound financial basis, Hamilton had a stupendous task before him. He bent all his great ability to the straightening out of America's tangled financial condition. Where others would have ended with dismal failure, Hamilton succeeded.
As the result of his work he brought out a series of financial measures which quickly and firmly established the credit of the country. He advocated the payment in full with interest of the enormous National debt and the debts of the states. He established methods of taxation by imposts and excises; he provided for the establishment of a National Bank and a Mint. All of these measures and many more besides, under his leadership, were adopted by Congress, though not without bitter controversies.
After Hamilton had rendered this valuable service to the country he retired from public office, and again took up the practice of law which he had begun years before. This was in 1795.
Hamilton was worshiped by his friends and hated by his enemies. He never ceased to take an active interest in the politics of the time; and it was largely through his efforts that Thomas Jefferson, and not Aaron Burr, was elected President in 1800. Then four years later, Hamilton prevented Burr from being elected governor of New York. Whereupon Burr became Hamilton's bitter enemy, and determined to kill him. So, claiming that Hamilton had defamed him, he picked a quarrel with the New York lawyer and challenged him to a duel.
According to the code of honor of those days, Hamilton could not well refuse to accept the challenge, although he did not believe in dueling. Weehawken, in New Jersey, was chosen as the place for the fight. Arrangements were made; and on the morning of July 11, 1804, the two statesmen and their seconds were rowed to the Jersey shore. Pistols were to be the weapons. The principals took their places. The signal to fire was given. Hamilton did not even attempt to shoot Burr. But, in his hatred, Burr took calm and deliberate aim. His bullet struck Hamilton in the body, and he fell. He had received a fatal wound; and although he lived to be taken home, before many hours he died. He had barely passed the prime of life, for he was but forty-seven years old.
The grief for his loss was deep. Burr was indicted for murder and was compelled to flee. The misfortunes that came to him in his after life must have seemed sufficient penalty for his revenge. Disliked, suspected, with the stain of Hamilton's death on his reputation, this brilliant man died in misery and poverty thirty-two years later.
Hamilton was buried in New York in Trinity churchyard, at the head of Wall Street. His tomb of white marble, now yellow with age, is surrounded by stately buildings. He lies near one of the great financial centers of the world—a center which his genius did much to create.
Perhaps the love and admiration of his countrymen is best told in the epitaph on his tomb. It reads in part:
The PATRIOT of incorruptible INTEGRITY
The SOLDIER of approved VALOUR
The STATESMAN of consummate WISDOM
Whose TALENTS and VIRTUES will be admired
Long after this MARBLE shall have mouldered into